Before Sustainability - One engineer’s story of trailblazing a field — and giving back to keep it going

Ken Price
Ken Price, chairman of Indiana-based Heritage Environmental Services, has helped pioneer what we now commonly refer to as sustainable engineering practices. Little did Price know back in 1980 that he’d be at the forefront of an emerging field, and in a position to help sustain it decades later.

Price (BSCE ’64, MSCE ’66, PhD ’68) learned early the importance of simple, clean living. His father, a tool and die maker by trade and a carpenter and mason by hobby, built the family house. Building from scratch and reusing materials were embedded family practices. So it was no surprise when Price enrolled in Purdue’s civil engineering program. He emerged from Purdue with his PhD and began a series of jobs, including serving as a consultant to the Environmental Protection Agency.

That early exposure to environmental issues led him to Heritage Environmental, the largest privately held environmental solutions company in North America. Heritage researches innovative methods focused on sustainability, constantly seeking to improve the recycling of hazardous industrial by-products.

“Our first decades of research and development at Heritage were focused on what today we more commonly call sustainability,” Price says. “Back then, we just thought of it as doing the right thing, or to use the old adage, ‘waste not, want not.’ More than 32 years ago, we adopted as a guiding principle the hierarchy of prevention, minimization, reuse, recycling, detoxification and — finally — disposal being the last option.”

While Price’s industry role stands out, he also has published a number of technical articles in professional journals. He and the Heritage team have developed numerous patents, including one to make superior micronutrient copper salts from spent printed circuit board etchants; another process that manufactures products from electric arc furnace dust, the most prevalent hazardous waste in the United States; and another that champions the use of steel slag aggregate as a wear course to make safer interstate highways. These processes are a testament to the underlying philosophy of Heritage: cost-effective for the waste-generator, desirable for the quality materials they produce and all supporting sustainability.

Throughout his career, Price has kept close ties with Purdue, largely through professional contacts with engineering professors. “Our corporate headquarters building is named for James Etzel (MSCE ’55, PhD ’57), former head of the environmental engineering area within the School of Civil Engineering who passed away last year,” Price says. “He served on our research and development committee for many, many years, and he’s just one of many. We’ve continually tapped Purdue engineers as associates — like Ralph Roper (BSME ’68, MSCE ’73, PhD ’76) or Winde Hamrick (BSChE ’86) — and as outside consultants — like Professor Bernie Tao — because we need their expertise to do our job well. We fully understand the need for sophisticated environmental testing to protect our environment and to enable us to reuse and recycle the maximum amount of materials that, years ago, would have simply been thrown away. To do that, we need experts at our fingertips, and Purdue has been a consistent source of those experts.”

And, of course, a laboratory and knowledge of environmental testing is crucial.

While serving as the chairman of the Civil Engineering Advisory Council, Price admits to having been “personally shocked” to learn that the instructional lab for undergraduate environmental engineering students had lapsed into such disrepair that the University had decided to close the facility.

“That laboratory was built in 1964, when I was just starting my master’s degree. When I entered the doctoral program in 1966, I taught classes to undergraduates in that laboratory. It wasn’t just another sad story, but a place embedded with important learning and unforgettable memories of my own Purdue experience. I just couldn’t stand by idly and watch it disappear,” Price says.

Lab view 1 Lab view 2 Lab view 3

Price went to the managing trustee of the Heritage Group, Fred Fehsenfeld Jr., and suggested that Heritage fund the lab’s renovation. Price’s idea was received enthusiastically, provided Price would agree to make a contribution of his own. Having previously established a scholarship fund to recognize Etzel, they agreed to name the lab for Heritage itself, solidifying the symbiotic past, present and future ties between Purdue and Heritage Environmental.

After receiving a joint commitment of $250,000 over the next five years — a gift to be matched by a repair and rehabilitation grant from Purdue — the Heritage Environmental Engineering Teaching Laboratory is well on its way. The lab will support the environment-oriented classes of civil engineering and the newly established undergraduate degree program of environmental and ecological engineering. The school will also recognize Heritage’s generosity and inspire students with the types of crucial solutions Heritage is working toward by installing an interactive technological display case in which Heritage will showcase current projects.

“I have always enjoyed the creative part of engineering the most,” Price says. “Whether it’s thinking of a new approach to solve a technical problem, or a new business model for delivering an engineering service, or the best way to solidify a business relationship, I get the most satisfaction from creating something new.”